When the you’re smilin’, when you’re smilin’, the whole world smiles with you. - Louis Armstrong, “Satchmo.”
Seems as though the same thing is true of winning. At least at O’Neill.
What we have here is a football program that had never won a state playoff title located in a town crazy about the idea of seeing it happen. And acting a little crazy when in 2016 it did.
“Nothing better than being a part of something bigger than yourself and watching a team, school, and community coming together to bring home a championship,” says OHS head coach Brock Eichelberger. “This will be a group of kids that we will be talking about for a long time for their commitment to the program, character, and work ethic. This group has paved the road for our future players to follow and we are excited to see where it goes from here.”
Last season O’Neill capped a perfect 13-0 season with a rousing 39-22 win over Bishop Neumann in the Class C-1 state final. In the quarterfinal round the Eagles used a spectacular one-handed touchdown grab by Wyatt Liewer to KO defending state champion Aquinas.
“Our team proved hard work, determination, and believing in what you do can take a team a long ways. I thought every game and through the play-offs we gained more confidence and played better each game, finishing in the state final as well as we could have,” says Coach Eichelberger. “Our players believed in each other and were mentally tough all year, but in the second half of the final against a powerhouse like Neumann was the most focus I’ve ever seen out of a team.”
Last fall’s championship team was built on a great off-season worth of training, and that won’t change in 2017, says Coach Eichelberger. “We’ve already seen the turnover and our kids are very hungry right now knowing what it takes. Our spring speed and agility work is underway and our players are working hard again for a shot to compete next fall.”
Good as the Class of 2017 seniors were to the program - and O’Neill graduates three all-staters, including acknowledged team leader Jake Young - the cupboard is not bare. Not at all.
Senior-to-be QB Alex Thramer returns after passing for 28 touchdowns...and zero interceptions, passing for a school record 1,900 yards in the process, more than doubling the former record. Like Thramer a 2016 all-stater, junior wide receiver Justin Appleby “just doesn’t drop a ball in his zip code,” says Coach Eichelberger, and Liewer is also back. Between them they combined for over 1,600 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns, making them the most productive set of receivers in Class C-1.
Senior Shayne Campbell will take on the team’s role of go-to running back, one in which he will thrive, says Coach Eichelberger. “Shayne is one of the most hard-working and focused individuals that I’ve ever coached. We’re going to get him the ball 15 to 20 times a game and I’m really excited to see his role change. He is one of the guys that we can trust when the ball is in his hands.”
Also expect a big contribution from junior running back and linebacker Spencer Davis. “Spencer has already physically matured since football has been over and he’s excited to carry the load in the backfield with Shayne,” says Coach Eichelberger.
Once again O’Neill will face a consistently challenging schedule, with games against Grand Island Central Catholic, Ord, Boone Central/Newman Grove, Pierce, Norfolk Catholic and Columbus Lakeview, all consistently good programs, some better than good. “Our schedule will be tougher than boiled owl,” says Coach Eichelberger, knowing full well I’ve never tasted boiled owl. “Every game will be a challenge for us and coming off of a season like ours, teams will get amped up to play their best against us.”
But that’s OK. Win a state title and everybody’s coming after you...even the younger kids in your own school.
“Our kids from the elementary to the high school are really excited to be an Eagle right now. It’s brought our community closer and it’s made everyone a little more hungry to put a product out there year in and year out that can compete,” says Coach Eichelberger. “I really like seeing our younger elementary students out playing football at recess with their state championship shirts on...brings a smile to my face.”
So did winning the T-shirt, you’d imagine.